A post in which a quibble with a New York Times book reviewer provides an excuse to cite some astonishing passages of prose

I was disappointed by Jim Holt’s recent review of Hugh Aldersey-Williams new book, In Search of Sir Thomas Browne. First of all, it’s more a review of Browne as a person than of the book itself. Holt’s verdict: he’s no good. He’s a “minor thinker” and a superstitious weirdo. Sure, says Holt, he’s a good writer, but his work contains “much verbiage that is (to my plain taste) cloyingly grandiloquent.”

That Holt is not a fan of Browne’s style and person is, as he says, a matter of taste, so we can’t really dispute that, though I wonder why the New York Times would have him review a book whose subject matter he finds so unsympathetic. More troublesome, however, is his shaky grasp of literary history. For example, this sentence:

At a time when the prevailing plain style was growing dull and insipid (John Locke is an example), it was Browne who showed the way to new possibilities of Ciceronian splendor.

There’s nothing about this sentence that isn’t wrong. First, the timeline makes no sense: Religio Medici, Browne’s meditation on the relation between science and faith (and his first book), was first published in 1643, when Locke was 11 years old.

Even if we’re thinking in terms of a more general timeline, it’s still incorrect. There was no “prevailing plain style” when Browne was writing–I don’t think you’ll find a scholar that will dispute that the middle 17th century was the height of baroque prose style in England. The styles ranged from loose sentences that sometimes verged on a sort of proto-stream of consciousness to the abrupt, rough-hewn, searching approach of the so-called “curt” style. The point is, many adjectives may be used to describe the prose of mid-17th century England, but “plain” is not one of them.

A few examples: shortly before Browne was writing, we have John Donne’s sermons, letters, and his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). With its extended conceits (like his poetry), stretched syntax, and emergent trains of thought, there’s nothing about Donne’s prose we can call “plain”:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is a diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world doth, nay, than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation. Enlarge this meditation upon this great world, man, so far as to consider the immensity of the creatures this world produces; our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are born giants; that reach from east to west, from earth to heaven; that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament at once; my thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, any where, and any one of my creatures, my thoughts, is with the sun, and beyond the sun, overtakes the sun, and overgoes the sun in one pace, one step, everywhere.  

Contemporaneous with Browne is Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. First published in 1621, Burton revised and expanded over several editions—in 1624, 1628, 1632, 1638—and finally in 1651, which is the glorious sprawling 1200-page monstrosity we know today. Notice that year falls squarely between the publication dates of Religio Medici (1643) and what most critics acknowledge as Browne’s masterpiece, Urn Burial (1658). Here’s a taste of Burton’s prose:

[L]ove is blind, as the saying is, Cupid’s blind, and so are all his followers… . Every lover admires his mistress, though she be very deformed of herself, ill-favoured, wrinkled, pimpled, pale, red, yellow, tanned, tallow-faced, have a swollen juggler’s platter face, or a thin, lean, chitty face, have clouds in her face, be crooked, dry, bald, goggle-eyed, blear-eyed, or with staring eyes, she looks like a squissed cat, hold her head still awry, heavy, dull, hollow-eyed, black or yellow about the eyes, or squint-eyed, sparrow-mouthed, hook-nosed, have a sharp fox nose, a red nose, a nose like a promontory, gubber-tushed, rotten teeth, black, uneven, brown teeth, beetle browed, a witch’s beard, her breath stink all over the room, her nose drop winter and summer… . [continues for about a page more]

Plain here would be something along the lines of “Every lover admires his mistress, regardless of her appearance.” Instead we have a barely-structured, page-long sentence that enumerates the various colorful and memorable (“looks like a squissed cat”) ways a person might be ugly. By the way, in a letter to his brother George, Keats quotes this passage and says, “I would give my favourite leg to have written this…”

Also in 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his Leviathan. William Gass once described the following passage from that book as “the greatest list in our language”:

And, for that part of religion which consisteth in opinions concerning the nature of powers invisible, there is almost nothing that has a name that has not been esteemed amongst the Gentiles, in one place or another, a god or devil, or by their poets feigned to be inanimated, inhabited, or possessed, by some spirit or other.

 The unformed matter of the world was a god by the name of Chaos.

 The heaven, the ocean, the planets, the fire, the earth, the winds, were so many gods.

   Men, women, a bird, a crocodile, a calf, a dog, a snake, an onion, a leek, were deified. Besides that, they filled almost all places with spirits called ‘demons’: the plains with Pan and Panises or Satyrs, the woods with Fauns and Nymphs, the sea with Tritons and other Nymphs, every river and fountain with a ghost of his name and with Nymphs, every house with its ‘Lares’ or familiars, every man with his ‘Genius,’ hell with ghosts and spiritual officers, as Charon, Cerberus, and the Furies, and in the night-time, all places with ‘larvæ,’ ‘lemures,’ ghosts of men deceased and a whole kingdom of fairies and bugbears. They have also ascribed divinity, and built temples to mere accidents and qualities, such as are time, night, day, peace, concord, love, contention, virtue, honour, health, rust, fever, and the like; which when they prayed for or against they prayed to, as if there were ghosts of those names hanging over their heads, and letting fall or withholding that good or evil for or against which they prayed. They invoked also their own wit by the name of Muses, their own ignorance by the name of Fortune, their own lust by the name of Cupid, their own rage by the name of Furies, their own privy members by the name of Priapus; and attributed their pollutions to Incubi and Succubæ: insomuch as there was nothing which a poet could introduce as a person in his poem which they did not make either a ‘god’ or a ‘devil.’

There are many more examples of rich prose of mid-17th century England, and for purely selfish reasons, I’m tempted to go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.

Another concern is Holt’s description of the “Ciceronian splendor” of Browne’s prose. I find it odd that, writing for a general readership, Holt feels no need to explain what he means by “Ciceronian,” that is, in the manner of the balanced, hyper-polished prose of the Roman politician and orator, Cicero. Discussing 17th century prose in terms of “Ciceronian” and “Anti-Ciceronian” styles was popularized in the early 20th century by the scholar Morris Croll. But here’s the thing: Croll accurately described Browne’s meditative and associative style as Anti-Ciceronian. Croll’s point is that Browne and writers like him were reacting against the overly-contrived style that characterized much of 16th century prose (an example would be John Lyly).

I’m itching to cite examples of Browne’s prose, but we’re going to save that for the next post. 

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